A Fight on the River
The mountains are rolling and green, hawks glide on invisible wind currents, endlessly circling gracefully above. On occasion a bald eagle soars powerfully across the sky; deer are a common sight along the river’s edge. The Delaware River is the dividing line between Pennsylvania and New York in this area. The river winds circuitously as it makes its way south to the coastal waters far below. The slow moving water of the Delaware creates a mirror image of the mountains and sky above. The Delaware River is clear and provides a magical window to the life and terrain below its sparkling surface. Rocks that fit in the palm of your hand share the underwater space with rocks the size of small cars. Fish careen in and around their varied aquatic environment, as we float above them.
Bluestone was the economic backbone of the Upper Delaware: Pennsylvania on one side, New York on the other and right down the middle is the Delaware River, a winding ribbon of water. In the 19th century hefty blue gray slabs mined from the mountains, were slowly hauled down the hillside by horse drawn wagons. The loaded wagons were brought to Lordville, Long Eddy and Callicoon and then hoisted onto big flat boats, stacked vertically and floated along the river to access points along the way, where the massive cleanly cut stone would then be transferred to trains that awaited them. The quarried stone was then transported to the city and turned into sidewalks, forming an integral part of the beauty of many of the neighborhoods throughout New York City. Many of the sidewalks I walk on everyday are paved in this magnificent stone.
That was a hundred years ago. Since then the Upper Delaware River area has undergone a steady and slow decline. Farming and recreation form the economic foundation of the area today. Small family farms are picturesquely located among the mountains. Summer camps are a seasonal boost economically to the area and provide relief for children who come from the city to take in the lovely natural setting. The Upper Delaware River is also known to be one of the best trout fishing rivers in the country and in the springtime the river is peppered with fisherman standing waist-deep in her waters, with fishing lines stretched from their long poles, waiting, waiting for a bite. The Delaware River is part of the larger Delaware Watershed which also supplies 15 million people daily with drinking water from its 13,000 sq miles.
Recently the area has come under strain of a heated and serious debate. The Upper Delaware Region sits atop a shale basin, called The Marcellus Shale region. It is speculated to have the most abundant source of natural gas locked in its rock, more than anywhere else in the United States. The Marcellus Shale region stretches across the states of Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, with the largest area concentrated in Pennsylvania. On one side of the debate you have energy companies slowly gobbling up the land, especially in Pennsylvania, enticing landowners with lease money to drill exploratory wells. The energy companies which are in sync with some of President Obama’s energy policies are trying to wean its customers from foreign oil. Drilling for natural gas would be an easy way to do this and the Marcellus Shale offers many years of drilling but the supply is finite and won’t even last a hundred years of drilling. Many landowners readily agree to sign multi-year leases, taking advantage of the money that is being offered. And why shouldn’t landowners profit? Initially landowners signed leases without a real understanding of the potential profits to be made from the precious natural gas under their land. They sold their land cheap compared to later lease signers who gambled and decided to wait to see where the prices of signing a lease would go. When it became certain of the abundance of natural gas below, frenzy ensued. Energy companies began offering more and more money per acre to buy the rights to drill for the invisible “gold” trapped in the ancient shale rock below. Shrewd landowners did well by the energy companies, others less savvy made deals ending in bitter feelings.
The northern part of the Delaware River has been run roughshod, depleted by industries now long gone. Towns and their dwellings show various states of decay, but the pristine landscape more than makes up for it. There are signs here and there that the tide is turning: but overall change is slow and for some of us, we like it that way. I am just a yearly visitor to the area, coming for a few days in the summer to canoe the Delaware River and in the fall to view the fall colors of the rolling mountains and, finally, in the spring simply to unwind from the winter in the city.
Our driver Jack graduated a couple years ago from Penn State and now works with his father running the family business of canoe rentals and a campground. With a single canoe strapped to the rack behind us, he drove the winding back roads where beautiful old farmhouses with fancy gingerbread dot the countryside. Here and there massive barns with a silver grey patina offer a glimpse of the livestock that live inside. The road leads to the Buckingham Access point on the Delaware River. This is only a 15 minute drive but it translates to 4 to 5 five hours of water travel on the river. I asked him about the drilling for gas issue and he was conflicted. As he drove along the road, he slowed up to point to a drilling site. I was shocked at the site’s proximity to the river and piqued by the juxtaposition of the beauty of landscape and the industrial set up of the well. Jack sees the rewards of signing a lease with the energy companies that brought in much needed cash to the family business so major capital improvements could be done. Jack has an engineering degree and understands the science of gas drilling. He notes that not all the energy companies are righteous but feels for the most part that the majority of the gas drilling companies have good intentions and are trying to do the right thing. He understands why there is a divide between residents who want to have drilling take place and those who do not. He notes that many of the residents who leased their land to the energy companies were barely scraping by as dairy farmers, land farmers and small business owners. He said that landowners like his father organized a consortium of other landowners to lease their land for the same price per acre, that way everyone benefits.
Other landowners steadfastly refuse to sell the rights to drill on their land. Their fear stems from a technique used to extract the gas from the rock called “fracking.” Recent events have shown fracking to be unsafe and harmful to people, the land, their wells and potentially the vast Upper Delaware Watershed. “Fracking” frees up the natural gas from the rock it is in, thereby allowing drillers to extract the gas. A combination of chemicals (not readily revealed by the energy companies, but many that are known are carcinogenic and highly toxic) and water is forced into the rock under very high pressure. The rock is exploded and the natural gas is released, then tapped and brought to the surface. The “fracking” fluid, known as waste water is then pumped out of the well and stored in open lined pits, adjacent to the drill sites. There has been contamination of wells from below, as well as leakage and overflow of the waste water pits causing small but grave environmental damage. Recently New York voted to have a year long moratorium on natural gas drilling so further research can be conducted by the State to determine the actual safety of drilling for gas.
At the Buckingham Access point just upriver from the hamlet of Equinunk, Jack dropped our canoe into the river. The sky was blue with big cottony clouds above, the mountains were carpeted in green and the river’s surface was miraculously still. My friend and I floated downstream marveling at the natural wonder of the area. The river was noticeably quiet that day and we felt all alone in the world. We saw no people nor heard the tell tales signs of them via lawn mowers or shouts of raucous fun along the river. Downriver near Equinunk we noticed a lone fly fisherman standing quietly in the cool water of the river. With a dramatic massive rock-face as his backdrop, I commented to him how beautiful the area is. His response was “not for long once they begin drilling for gas."